Indians began voting Monday in an election where size alone reflected a democracy that is alive and as well as can be expected in a time of scandal, instability and violence.

Choosing from among nearly 5,000 candidates vying for 543 federal parliament seats will take six days. The voters will fill 222 of those seats in the first day of balloting Monday.In all, 850,000 polling stations and 4.5 million election officials are needed. Some 600 million Indians are registered to vote. If half turn out as usual, that's still more than the entire U.S. population.

Only soldiers and election staff turned out as polling stations opened in the Assamese state capital of Gauhati early Monday. The region's most powerful rebel group, the United Liberation Front of Assam, had warned residents not to vote.

In the northeast state of Manipur, where voting was taking place Monday, eight soldiers were killed as they took up positions at polling stations Sunday. Details of the deaths weren't immediately available.

Thousands of security troops are crucial in a country where the government's authority is challenged in some places by rebel groups seeking independence or greater autonomy.

Violence erupted Saturday in the southern industrial town of Coimbatore, where 13 explosions killed at least 50 people. The attacks were blamed on Muslim militants apparently trying to disrupt campaigning by Hindu fundamentalists.

"It's an enormous task . . . and the world is watching," chief Election Commissioner Manohar Singh Gill said.